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Invisibilia recently shared a powerful story that demonstrates how emotional intelligence can diffuse a tense situation:

A man breaks into an evening dinner party, holds a gun to the temple of one of the guests and demands money. No one has money with them at the gathering, so they try to dissuade him in various ways, starting with guilt: What would your mother think of you?

But everything they say, fuels the situation until one woman offers the gunman a glass of wine and suggests that he sit down and join them. This moment flips the script. The gunman drinks wine, eats cheese, asks for hugs and eventually says, I think I’ve come to the wrong place. He then apologizes and walks away.

Watch this short video to hear a beautifully told and more detailed version of the story.

Non-Complementary Behavior

What’s remarkable about this story is that it’s a perfect example of what psychologists call non-complementary behavior. When we interact with people, it’s natural to mirror them. Thus, hostility begets hostility. Kindness begets kindness. And so on. Breaking this mirroring reaction, is non-complementary behavior.

Flipping the script is hard. When someone lashes out, we want to strike back. It’s a self-protective reaction, part of our flight or flight instinct, and overcoming this ingrained response requires emotional intelligence. First, we have to acknowledge feeling threatened and then we must choose to respond in a non-reactive and non-complementary way. The result, as seen in this story, can be disarming even when there aren’t literal weapons involved.

Hopefully, none of us need to practice non-complementary behavior while at gunpoint. But we all encounter situations in daily life with colleagues, friends, family and even strangers where non-complementary behavior could change the outcome of a conversation entirely. With enough awareness and control, hostility can beget kindness. Be on the lookout for the next time you can flip the script.